SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Let me begin by welcoming everyone to what should be my final press conference on this -- the last of my international trips as secretary. I've been saying that a lot lately, but my hope is that this time it really works.
Truthfully, I have appreciated the opportunity to be here and to be able to consult with my fellow NATO and ISAF defense ministers one last time as secretary of defense. And I should say that I deeply appreciate all of their -- their kind comments to me and also to Giampaolo. Both -- both Italians are going to be moving on.
Foremost on the agenda has been the mission in Afghanistan, which was the focus, as many of you know, of this morning's session and a key topic of my bilateral meetings over the last two days. In my discussions with the other ministers of defense, there is a strong consensus that our mission is succeeding, it's succeeding on the ground because of the growing role and capabilities that all of us have seen of the Afghan National Security Forces.
The ANSF are now in the lead for nearly 90 percent of combat operations. And they are on track to step into the lead for all of these operations by this spring. That has truly exceeded the expectations that were set at the Chicago summit last year, but it is as a result of their success in the field that General Allen, in particular, felt that we could make that transition in the spring.
This success led President Obama to accept General Allen's recommendation that the U.S. maintain a strong presence, once we've made this transition of combat control to the Afghans, that it was important for the United States to maintain a strong presence throughout the fighting season of 2013. What we're looking at is probably a presence in excess of 60,000 during the fighting season through the final transition of tranche five, which would take place in August of 2013.
Following that, sometime in the fall, we would then begin a drawdown that would take us to roughly about 50,000 by November, and then it would take us down, as the president indicated, to 34,000 by February of 2014. We would maintain that number through the election in order to provide and assist the Afghans in providing sufficient security for the elections. Once those elections were completed, we would then begin the final drawdown of our forces towards the end of 2014. I have full confidence that we'll be able to achieve our goal of giving the ANSF full responsibility for security nationwide by the end of 2014 and successfully complete this mission.
As my Italian father used to say in an old expression that he repeated oftentimes, “piano piano te va lontano,” which means, "Step by step, you'll go a long way." And I think that's probably good advice for all of us as we approach this final period, hopefully, in the completion of the mission that we've been engaged in, in Afghanistan.
As we draw closer to the end of our combat mission, the alliance has also begun to discuss how to implement our strong commitment to the long-term security of Afghanistan. In particular, we discussed how we could best continue to support the ANSF, building on the commitments that nations made last year in Chicago.
That continued support includes enablers and the possibility of providing funding to extent the ANSF at the surge level of 352,000 through 2018, before moving towards what would then be, hopefully, a more sustainable number. That is seriously being considered by the president, and it's something we discussed with President Karzai when he came to Washington.
We also discussed how to transition to our new train, advise, and assist mission after 2014. Today, we ask NATO to begin planning for a range of options on the post-2014 posture that would provide for an effective regional presence, not only in Kabul, but at fixed sites in the north, the south, the east, and the west.
As the United States weighs our own force posture options and consults with the Afghan government on a post-2014 presence, we will continue to work very closely with ISAF nations, particularly the other regional lead nations, to continue to discuss a range of options with regards to what the NATO force will look like in that post-2014 period. And our goal is obviously to ensure the success of this new mission and the long-term stability of Afghanistan. We've made a commitment to a strong enduring presence, and we intend to stand by that commitment.
As I prepare to leave NATO headquarters, I can say that, among the things that I am most proud of as secretary is the success of our troops that have been able to achieve the kind of successful direction that we've been able to achieve on the ground in Afghanistan and the extraordinary unity and strength and resolve of ISAF.
I had the opportunities a number of times to go to Afghanistan. This last time, I went to Afghanistan, had the opportunity to meet with all of our military leaders in the field. And to a person, each of them said that -- that this mission was headed in the right direction, and they all expressed confidence in the growing capability of the Afghan force to be able to handle security and to take on the enemy.
We've laid the groundwork for how our nations can come together to resolve the security challenges of the 21st century, including emerging challenges like the threat posed by violent extremism in North Africa and cyber attacks. I think the ability of having pulled together this great alliance and the effort in Afghanistan can really serve us as a model for how we decide to take on other challenges in the world that will confront us.
To resolve these challenges together, we must really commit to acting together. And there's no question that in the current budget environment, with deep cuts in European defense spending, the kind of political gridlock that we're seeing in the United States right now with regards to our own budget, is putting at risk our ability to effectively act together.
As I prepare to step down as secretary of defense, I do fear that the alliance will soon be -- if it is not already -- stretched too thin. In our sessions devoted to these topics, the questions I asked my fellow ministers were simple. Will we let our nations retreat from our responsibilities in the face of growing budget constraints? Or will we demonstrate the kind of creativity and innovation and political will to develop and share the capabilities we must have in order to meet future security threats together as an alliance?
The choice for our allies is clear. And I want to commend Secretary General Rasmussen for his leadership in warning against the effect of budget cuts and in proposing new ideas, like the Connected Forces Initiative, that will help our militaries continue to train and operate together, even as our deployments to Afghanistan are reduced.
These are critical to ensuring the readiness of the alliance, which has to be the top priority in an unpredictable and crisis-prone world. I'd also like to commend the secretary general for making cyber a major area of focus for the next defense ministerial. It's a call that I made upon NATO that they should do. We have seen -- we are seeing continuing attacks in the cyber arena on the private sector, on the public sector, in the defense arena. This is, without question, the battlefield for the future, and it's an area that NATO needs to pay attention to.
Let me conclude by noting, as I did last month in a speech that I gave in London, that there is a generational shift that is occurring. I'm probably the last American secretary of defense to have direct memories of World War II. And our youngest men and women in uniform today were born after the end of the Cold War.
The bonds that formed the basis of our alliance were built on the basis of those 20th century conflicts. But over more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, I believe we have renewed those bonds for the 21st century and carried out the most enduring and effective alliance campaign since World War II. If we have the strength to carry those bonds forward, then I believe that we can realize our shared dream of a better and more peaceful and more secure world for future generations. Thank you.
GEORGE LITTLE: The secretary is pleased to take a few questions. We'll start with the Associated Press. Or we'll start with Bloomberg.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Gopal Ratnam with Bloomberg News. Good luck to you as you leave and head back to your beloved California. I want to ask you two questions. This morning, the German defense minister has told reporters that you had expressed to him the U.S. would keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014. One, would you confirm that? And, second, in your discussions with your counterparts here in NATO, what kind of commitments do you ask of them post-2014? And what kind of promises have you got or what kind of concerns have they expressed to you about their commitments?
SEC. PANETTA: First of all, that report is not correct. We did discuss a range of options. And what we discussed was a range of options that would -- that would be directed to the NATO force overall, which includes both the U.S. force contribution that we would make, plus what other NATO countries would contribute, as well.
And that -- those options are there. NATO will continue to do a planning process around those options. And we will be working with them as we develop the final decisions that the president makes with regards to our commitment to that enduring presence.
With regards to the 2014 period, we did describe that we felt it was important to develop this regional approach to be able to have a presence in some of the key areas in the northwest, east, and south, to be able to have a presence, obviously, in Kabul, that we would provide -- continue to provide enabling capabilities, particularly on a strategic level, with regards to those forces, and that we would continue to work with them to develop what the train, advise, and assist mission should look like. So we're going to be continuing to work on that.
And that was -- I have to say -- there was good receptivity among all of the ministers with regards to the broad elements that I described during this last session.
Q: (off mic)
SEC. PANETTA: Pardon me?
Q: (off mic)
SEC. PANETTA: All of -- all of the ministers, a number of the ministers spoke. And I have to say that all of the ministers who spoke indicated that they appreciated the outlines that we presented and that they, too, were committed to an enduring presence. So I feel very confident that we are going to get a number of nations to make that contribution for the enduring presence.
MR. LITTLE: Yes, sir?
Q: It's (inaudible) from German television ZDF. I just heard the same thing, that the minister of defense of Germany said 8,000 to 12,000, so I just would like to make that understandable for me. So you say altogether there might be 8,000 to 12,000, is the contribution of the U.S. troops even less than 8,000 to 12,000? Or -- and in which region would you like to place troops?
SEC. PANETTA: What -- what we discussed was a range of options. I don't want to go into particular numbers, because, frankly, we want -- we want to be able to have the flexibility to look at a range of options that we ought to have for our enduring presence. But I want to make very clear that the range of options we were discussing was with regards to the NATO force.
And the NATO force consists of both a U.S. presence, plus NATO contributions. And we didn't define specifics on that. Frankly, that remains to be determined as we go forward with the planning process.
MR. LITTLE: Now the Associated Press.
Q: All right, thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. The discussion about extending and maintaining 352,000 Afghan troops for the next five years, can you talk a little bit about how you're going to be able to go to the U.S. Congress and defend something like that, when just the other day you had to issue public notice of furloughs for 800,000 civilian workers? How can you defend increasing this amount of spending when, obviously, the Defense Department in the United States is in deep financial problems?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think -- I mean, look, first and foremost, with regards to the crisis that we confront in the United States, the fact is, as I've said, that this, frankly, should not be a crisis. This is a -- this is a political crisis. It's not a crisis that relates to our capabilities within the budget that we've defined for the Defense Department.
And my hope is that -- that Congress does not allow sequester to take place. I think it would be, frankly, a very shameful and irresponsible act of political dysfunction if, in fact, that were to occur. The American people would be justly outraged to have people who they elect to office to protect them harm them by allowing sequester to take place.
So I guess my -- what I want to make clear is that sequester is -- is by no means -- doesn't reflect the budget that we have put in place to implement our strategy. It would be -- it would be truly an act of -- of irresponsibility if it happened.
And then I -- in terms of the consequences of sequester, I have to say, if sequester does take place, it could impact not only our readiness, but, frankly, the role that we would play with regards to the readiness of NATO, as well. So all of that would be impacted if that occurred.
Assuming that doesn't happen, then our view is that we -- you know, if the president makes the decision to continue the ANSF presence at 352,000, that that would be an investment that would be worth making, because it would allow us greater flexibility as we take down our troops, and it would allow us greater flexibility, frankly, to save in the funds that we now dedicate to the warfighting effort. And I think I can make that case to the Congress, that that would be an effective tradeoff.
MR. LITTLE: We have time for one more question. Yes, sir? And we'll wrap it up.
Q: (Inaudible), Tolo TV Afghanistan. Sir, most of the Afghans believe that the U.S. will abandon Afghanistan again when the combat mission finishes in Afghanistan. What type of guarantee you can give them, sir? Because on one hand, Taliban still pose a serious threat to the Afghan government, and the peace process is also not going well.
SEC. PANETTA: I -- you know, I want to make clear that -- that the United States and ISAF, the NATO -- the NATO countries that are involved in the ISAF effort, all of us are committed to supporting Afghanistan, not just now, but in the future. And that commitment is unwavering.
And the best example of that commitment is that we are going to maintain in excess of 60,000 troops there even after we've made the transition to the Afghans for combat responsibility. So we will maintain a significant presence there through a key fighting season and through the final transition of areas. And even as we draw down, we'll still maintain a significant presence there throughout the Afghan election.
And beyond that, we will maintain an enduring presence to be able to fulfill two key missions, to be able to train, assist and continue to support the Afghan army and defense force, and in addition to that, to conduct counterterrorism activities to make sure that Al Qaida and its affiliates never again are able to establish a safe haven there.
So I -- in the discussions I've had, both with President Karzai, with the defense minister, and with others, we have made very clear that we have a continuing and dedicated commitment to make sure that Afghanistan is a country that ultimately can govern and secure itself.
MR. LITTLE: Thank you, everyone. Have a good afternoon.